A great Stephen Fry interview in the NYT (with free-will lagniappe)

May 6, 2021 • 12:45 pm

Is there anybody who doesn’t like Stephen Fry? He’s so genial, so learned, so witty, so open and honest, and so disarming that I can’t imagine not feeling affection for him. But he’s left Twitter from time to time because of nasty remarks, and I suspect that many religionists don’t like his atheism nor homophobes his homosexuality. But screw them; he’s great!

In this week’s New York Times Magazine, there’s a very good interview with Fry by David Marchese (click on screenshot). Every bit is worth reading, especially if you want to know what a polymath is like (Fry not only absorbs material like a sponge, but also has a compulsion to tell people what he learned).

There are tons of good and revealing things here: his view on the need for humor, his 15-year period of celibacy, an almost-unprintable story of Gore Vidal at the Savoy Hotel in London, and his view on free will. I’ll give just three quotes, one of which is actually pro-woke. Marchese did a great job on this interview; his questions are in bold and Fry’s answers in plain type.

Do you ever wonder where your old friend Christopher Hitchens would fit into things now? 

I do. I loved him. He was adorable company, but I was also quite scared of him. He was a much tougher figure than I. He didn’t mind being disliked. He didn’t mind being howled down even. He seemed to enjoy it. I can quite imagine Hitchens being on the same platform with a Ben Shapiro perhaps. But I can’t imagine him having come out on the side of Trump. Hitchens just had a style that suited America despite his Britishness. It was the swagger. I miss that the culture doesn’t have enough of these sorts of people. Toward the last year of his life, I would visit another one of them, Gore Vidal, in Los Angeles, where he had his house; it was so overgrown in the garden that it was dark inside. He would retell stories of his great rows with Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag and William Buckley. Their arguments could be mordant and full of venom, but they weren’t as unhappy as so many debates now. There was a kind of joy and pleasure in the fight. [Be sure to read Fry’s Gore Vidal story!]

Ben Shapiro? I would like to think that Hitchens deserves a worthier opponent. And so does Marchese:

You mentioned Ben Shapiro.I’m not sure that people would agree that he’s quite the right comparison for Christopher Hitchens.

I mean, yes, I find Ben Shapiro abrasive. This anti-woke nonsense that he — a lot of it is disingenuous at best and malevolently blind at worst.There are people who have been denied any say in the way the world goes or even allowed a voice in expressing their experience, their stories, their lives, and it’s great that this is slowly being put right. It’s a shame that people of my background so often take it in a moaning way, as if it’s an assault on our gender and race.

He has a point, but I don’t think Fry fully realizes the excesses of wokeness. What would he say about Kimono Wednesdays being picketed at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, for instance? Or the demonization of the n-word to the point that you’re in trouble if you say a Chinese word that sounds like it? Or the accusation that yoga and lattes are aspects of white supremacy?

But let’s move on to free will.

You said earlier you’ve been reading philosophy. Is there a particular idea that you’re tickled by lately? 

I suppose the real biggie is free will. I find it interesting that no one really talks about it: I would say that 98 percent of all philosophers would agree with me that essentially free will is a myth. It doesn’t exist. That ought to be shocking news on the front of every newspaper. I’m not saying we don’t look both ways before we cross the road; we decide not to leave it to luck as to whether a car is going to hit us. Nor am I saying that we don’t have responsibility for our actions: We have agency over the body in which our minds and consciousness dwell. But we can’t choose our brains, we can’t choose our genes, we can’t choose our parents. There’s so much. I mean, look at the acts of a sociopath, which are performed with absolute will in the sense that he means to do what he’s doing, but he’s doing it because he has desires and impulses which he didn’t choose to have. Nobody elects to be a sociopath. The difference between us and them is one of degree. That certainly interests me. But, generally speaking, I suppose ethics is the most interesting. You do wonder if there are enoughpeople in the world thinking about the consequences of A.I. and technology.

Well, yes, lots of us talk about free will. But Fry, it seems, is misinformed, for he doesn’t seem to grasp the Dennettian view (common on this site) that we already have plenty of free will—the only kind worth wanting. Actually, Fry is of course is talking about determinism and contracausal free will here, and I suppose his emphasis on its being in the newspapers reflect the failure of the general public to fully grasp determinism, even though many commenters think that few people accept contracausal free will.

But don’t kvetch at me—Fry said it! Go tell him on Twitter that we really do have free will!

And read the rest of the interview; it’s a pure joy.

I met Fry only once: at the Hay Festival on the border of Wales and England, where I struck up a brief acquaintanceship with Tom Stoppard. I joined Stoppard at the table where he was having a smoke, and couldn’t resist the temptation to bum a smoke from the great playwright. Fry was sitting there, too, but didn’t know me, so I just basked in the Big Man’s greatness. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to such a table full of talent!

28 thoughts on “A great Stephen Fry interview in the NYT (with free-will lagniappe)

  1. Stephen Fry AND Tom Stoppard! My goodness, what a lucky happenstance. I’ve seen many of Stoppard’s plays, but not yet “The Hard Problem,” about consciousness. For my money “ The Real Inspector Hound” is the most fun.

    And Fry did a stint as a psychiatrist on the TV show BONES. That was fun!

    1. Love Stoppard’s plays. Have seen both thr plays you mention and was looking forward to seeing his latest, Leopoldstadt from National Theatre Live, when covid struck. I’m about to start his biography by Hermione Lee.
      Oh, loved the Stephen Fry, too.

  2. He [Gore Vidal] would retell stories of his great rows with Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag and William Buckley. Their arguments could be mordant and full of venom, but they weren’t as unhappy as so many debates now. There was a kind of joy and pleasure in the fight. [Be sure to read Fry’s Gore Vidal story!]

    Gee, thanks, I’ll never think of the word “sundries” the same way again. 🙂

    Vidal and Mailer had a longstanding literary feud. (A drunken Mailer famously headbutted Vidal in the green room before a joint appearance on Dick Cavett’s show, in response to a piece Vidal had recently published comparing Mailer and Henry Miller to Charlie Manson.) Yet there was an underlying affection between the two, and shared fellow feelings as authors who wrote both novels and longform non-fiction dealing with politics.

    Mailer also had a rivalry with Buckley, but the two were friends and spent some of their latter years touring together and debating each other.

    Vidal and Buckley though — those two truly did despise each other.

    1. If I recall correctly, they accused each other of anti-Semitism—in print—and each provided documented evidence in support—though I think Buckley’s case against Vidal was probably stronger….

      1. Vidal revealed a nasty streak of anti-Semitism deep in his dotage.

        Buckley sued Vidal and Esquire magazine over a piece Vidal published there regarding their joint appearances as television commentators during the 1968 Democratic and Republican national conventions — then sued them both again when Esquire reprinted the original article a few decades later.

        There was a really good documentary a few years back about the bitter Vidal-Buckley feud, The Best of Enemies.

      2. There’s a quote attributed to Vidal that I love: “The 2 greatest mistakes of Western Civilization are monotheism and agriculture.” I hope he said that.

    2. “Gee, thanks, I’ll never think of the word “sundries” the same way again.” – So the old snob was happy to pay up for the “sundries” when the Savoy asked him to…

    3. “A drunken Mailer famously headbutted Vidal in the green room before a joint appearance on Dick Cavett’s show”

      Vidal’s response: “Words fail Norman Mailer yet again.”

      1. No one could get off snarky one-liner like ol’ Gore. On the death of Truman Capote, he called it “a wise career move.”

        1. Quite true. But he could also be very kind to the kids. When he ran as the VP candidate to Dr Spock’s presidential bid for the People’s Party in 72. They did an convention stop in Tempe, AZ and Vidal ended up at the same restaurant with a group of about twelve of us students, joined us, and picked up the tab at the end.

  3. Is there another actor who could have brought P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves to life the way Mr. Fry did? His “Stephen Fry’s America” series was also joy to watch.

  4. Stephen Fry’s comments on free will seem to be a well-put expression of compatibilism, pretty much in line with Dennett et al.

    1. You wish! I don’t think any strict determinist couldn’t strike you as a Dennettian compatibilist. Free will is a myth? It doesn’t exist? Dennett would never say anything like that. Dennett would say that we have free will.

      1. Surely Dennett would agree that: “… he’s doing it because he has desires and impulses which he didn’t choose to have”. We cannot will what we will, our wills are determined by prior causes. We don’t have un-caused wills in the “contra casual free will” sense.

        But: “acts … are performed with absolute will in the sense that he means to do what he’s doing”. We have wills and we can act on them. We have “free will” in that sense.

        Dan thinks that free will in that latter sense, the “free will” we have, is the only free will worth wanting. He agrees that we don’t have free will in the un-caused will sense, and wouldn’t want it anyway.

        1. “He means to do what he’s doing” is ambiguous and tautological. You CANNOT NOT mean to what you’re doing by your own definition. And why must we say that our “will” is what is doing the acting or determining the action. Again, that’s just a fancy way of saying that “somebody did something.” That is, somebody acted according to his will (that is, of course unfalsifiable). You just insert “will” in there to make it seem that there is a “will” that is somehow involved in the action. What is this “will”? And what does it mean to say “someone ‘means’ to do something.?

          I swear, I can’t think of a single way to say “Somebody did something” without compatibilists adding that that that’s a compatibilist notion of free will. “Yes, pal, he had steak because that was according to his WILL. That’s what he MEANT to order. He was acting on his WILL TO HAVE STEAK.”

          Look, take it up with Stephen Fry and not me. Go to his Twitter feed and say that he’s dead wrong in saying that we don’t have free will. Then explain to him why he does have free will.

  5. I love Stephen Fry. It’s hard to fault his rather lightweight take on free will. How can he think no one talks about it? It seems he does believe in Dennett’s kind of free will, though perhaps he would object to calling it that.

    “You do wonder if there are enough people in the world thinking about the consequences of A.I. and technology.”

    Has Fry been locked away somewhere for decades? Every other book these days is on this subject. Perhaps he’s being sarcastic.

    1. It seems he does believe in Dennett’s kind of free will

      cf

      … philosophers would agree with me that essentially free will is a myth.

  6. Fry is wonderfully erudite – something else to hold against him for those that hate atheism, homosexuality, and intelligence I dare say. I liked the last paragraph:

    Just curious: Is there a Greek myth where a choice like that arises and things don’t go badly?
    [Laughs.] No. They’re very honest, the Greek myths. They understand if we can take a wrong turn, we will.

    Fry makes a worrying point with his Prometheus /AI analogy. I guess that the choice is between “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that” and “I’m sorry HAL, …”?

  7. Fry did not know the Great Professor Ceiling Cat?!! Shame on him!

    He supports the right football team anyway.

  8. I never met Stephen Fry properly but at Gay Pride in London 2010 we happened to brush up against each other on a very crowded Old Compton Street. I told him I was a fan and shook his hand and he said, “Oh, thank you!”

  9. I’m listening to one of his podcasts “Stephen Fry’s Seven Deadly Sins,” and so far it’s a blast.

    The man definitely has insightful commentary on these “vices”, especially when one is to “look inwards.” And alot of references to Ayn Rand.

  10. I met Stephen Fry at the CSI Con in Las Vegas in 2019. He was extremely kind and funny. He really made an effort to be nice to people. I also met Dawkins that day, but he was less warm than Fry.

  11. I like Fry’s description of free will as a myth rather than an illusion. It is more appropriate (as Sam Harris has pointed out, free will isn’t even a good illusion when you observe it closely) and it offers something to those who are disturbed to find their faith in free will under attack. As with all good myths, we don’t have to believe it actually true to learn from it, and apply that knowledge to help us find better ways of living together.

    1. I don’t think it is either, although it has some aspects of being an illusion. I think what we experience as “free will” or, in Fry’s better term, “agency,” is the result of a feedback mechanism that lets us control our actions (as opposed to reactions). It’s an established fact that the decisions we make, like where to return a tennis ball, are actually pre-conscious, although we experience them as conscious decisions after the return has already been made. Starting as an infant, we do things which our feedback mechanism accepts or rejects. That acceptance/rejection informs the next “decision” that we make. It begins with reactions to physical experience, but eventually incorporates reactions to mental or emotional experiences. Over time, we build up a body of feedback that controls what we decide. So agency is a real thing, but the timing is an illusion.

      (I apologize if this is a duplicate post. It’s not clear to me that my first attempt worked…)

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